Traditionally Bonfire Night is held in Britain on 5th November. It celebrates the defeat of a conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament with the then king, James I, in it. Bonfire Night is celebrated with bonfires and fireworks.
The Story of the Gunpowder Plot & Guy Fawkes
On 5th November 1605, two years after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, soldiers discovered a man called Guy Fawkes in a cellar under the Houses of Parliament. With him were at least twenty barrels of gunpowder. Guy Fawkes was arrested and tortured. At last he gave way and told his torturers about a plot to blow up Parliament, together with the King, James I, his Ministers and Members of Parliament.
Guy Fawkes was a Roman Catholic who had been angered by the failure of King James, who was after all the son of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, to grant more religious toleration to Catholics. He had joined with a group of four other Catholics led by Robert Catesby in the plot to kill the king. Catesby had made the mistake of inviting other Catholics to join the plot. One of these was called Francis Tresham. Tresham wrote a letter to his brother-in-law Lord Monteagle warning him not to go to Parliament and Monteagle told the government. Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were executed as traitors.
In 1606 Parliament agreed to make 5th November a day of public thanksgiving and ever since then the day has been celebrated with fireworks and bonfires.
Bonfires and Burning the Guy
In some ways Bonfire Night is related to the ancient festival of Samhain, the Celtic New Year. Bonfires formed an important part of the Celtic New Year celebrations - warding off evil spirits. Bonfires play a part in many customs all over the world. On November 5th as part of Bonfire Night celebrations we too light bonfires. What makes the British Bonfire Night celebrations special is the burning of the guy. The guy is a figure usually made by the children out of old clothes, papier mache and anything else we can use. It represents Guy Fawkes and is burnt on the bonfire. Sometimes in the week or so before Bonfire Night children will take their guys on to the street and beg "a penny for the Guy". The money then goes towards the fireworks.
One of the best parts of Bonfire Night is bonfire food. Try baking potatoes in the bonfire, sausages cooked over the flames and marshmallows toasted in the fire. Of course, ask an adult to help you - fire can be dangerous.
The memory of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 is preserved by many cheerful customs in various parts of the United Kingdom and by one dignified ceremony that takes place in London before the Opening of Parliament.
This is the searching, by a detachment of Yeomen of the Guard, of the cellars under the Palace of Westminster, either on the evening before the opening or more usually on the morning itself. The Yeoman in their scarlet and gold uniforms come from the Tower of London to the Prince's Chamber in the House of Lords and there, in the presence of a number of palace officials, they are given old candle-lanterns for use during their prolonged tour of the basements, vaults and cellars.
Carrying their lighted lanterns and firmly ignoring the existence of the very efficient electric lighting, they search every corner and conceivable hiding place to satisfy themselves that no gun-powder barrels, or bombs have been concealed anywhere with intent to blow up Sovereign, Lords or Commons.
When they have proved by personal and careful inspection that all is well, a message is sent to the Queen, the Yeoman are given some well-earned refreshments and march back to the Tower. Parliament is then free to assemble without fear of disaster.
It need hardly be said that the safety of Parliament does not really depend upon this picturesque last minute ceremony. Nevertheless, there was a night in 1605 when it did so depend upon a grim but earnest search through the multifarious cellars that then under-ran the Palace of Westminster and it is this event which the modern ceremony traditionally commemorates.